IAEA needs "robust" N.Korea mandate: ex-official

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (BestGrowthStock) – Nuclear inspectors need to have a “robust” mandate to carry out their work in North Korea and a mere presence as in the past would not be enough, a former senior official in the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Tuesday.

Olli Heinonen, who stepped down this year as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspections worldwide, told Reuters it was essential to shed light on the reclusive state’s nuclear proliferation activities.

U.S. troubleshooter Bill Richardson said in Beijing on Tuesday that Pyongyang had promised to let personnel from the IAEA, which was expelled in 2009, return.

Speaking after a visit to the North, Richardson said it had agreed to let IAEA inspectors go to the Yongbyon nuclear site to make sure it is not processing highly-enriched uranium — a material that can be used to make atom bombs.

“This is good news provided that, this time, the IAEA will be provided with a real robust verification mandate,” Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said in an email.

“A simple presence, as was the case, in particular, after the 2007 monitoring agreement, is not sufficient to ensure that North Korea is honoring its international commitments including the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” he said.

The Yongbyon complex is at the heart of the North’s plutonium weapons programme. It includes a reprocessing plant where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.

Foreign experts said last month that North Korean officials had shown them what they said was a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, potentially offering a second path to make bombs.

CONFIDENCE-BUILDING STEP?

The experts said they had not been able to establish whether the plant was designed to produce only the low-enriched uranium needed to make fuel for a power plant or the more highly refined uranium that is used to make nuclear weapons.

Analysts said it was unclear how much access IAEA inspectors would really get because North Korea has limited their oversight in the past. They also said the major worry was whether there were other nuclear sites hidden outside of Yongbyon.

To be sure no material is diverted for military purposes, they say inspectors would need unfettered access to all North Korea’s uranium enrichment activities. This would usually mean frequent inspections, video cameras and special seals at such sites.

“It is … now essential to start to shed light on North Korea’s proliferation activities,” Heinonen said.

North Korea kicked out international inspectors in 2002 after breaching seals placed on key parts of the Yongbyon plant as a 1994 deal between Pyongyang and Washington unraveled.

It expelled inspectors again in April last year after rejecting the intrusive inspections agreed under a 2005 nuclear-disarmament-for-aid deal with five regional powers.

Even though it has exploded nuclear devices underground, North Korea has not shown it has a working nuclear bomb.

The IAEA has declined to comment on the North’s new offer. Diplomatic sources said they did not believe Pyongyang had yet contacted the agency about a return of inspectors.

One Vienna-based diplomatic source said it would help to build confidence if U.N. inspectors were allowed to go to the Yongbyon enrichment facility.

But the source said the United States, Japan and South Korea would continue to be suspicious of the North’s activities, saying there was no reason for it to have an enrichment plant in the absence of a reactor to use the material as fuel.

“Inspections are most valuable when you are trying to verify that there is no weapon or military programme in the country, not just at this site,” the source added.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

IAEA needs "robust" N.Korea mandate: ex-official